The best goal of Thomas Müller’s World Cup career came during a Brazilian monsoon. Or at least it felt like a monsoon. The streets running from Recife’s center to the stadium on the city’s outskirts hearkened to the canals of Venice. Buses and taxis sloshed through the flooded, winding roads that reached the bowl. Locals dragged drowning motorcycles across the urban rivers, and pushed capsized cars to the medians, where they’d have a chance to outlive the deluge. There were rumors that the day’s game between Germany and the United States would be delayed for a while, or even postponed until the next afternoon. Empty seats, all painted red, peppered the stands. The spectators who showed up — many wrapped in cheap plastic ponchos — crowded the Arena Pernambuco, huddling under awnings and in stairwells until the German and American players took the field.
A few days earlier, in cheerier weather, Müller had netted a hat trick against Portugal — the first a header, followed by two rebound goals. The goal in Recife was a rebound, too. Sort of. But given the situation, it might as well have been a bicycle.
For much of the afternoon, Müller’s Germans — the class of Group G, and the eventual tournament champions — slogged across the pitch. Even in lethargy, they were exceptional. Their tickets to the round of 16 already punched, and needing only a draw to secure the top spot in the round-robin, Germany bullied their American opponents, despite being slowed by the soggy pitch. A half came and went, and the score still held level. In the second, Die Mannschaft pressed harder, and after 10 minutes, earned a corner.
As Mesut Özil stepped forward to take his kick, Müller lined up toward the back of the box. Özil took it quickly, sending the ball to midfielder Toni Kroos before taking it right back, and firing it to Per Mertesacker at the near post. The towering defender directed it off his head to the far corner, only to be thwarted by a diving Tim Howard. But the threat still loomed large.
Müller moved forward, measuring his steps — two short paces, followed by a lunge, and a swing. The Brazuca exploded off his boot. Howard never had a chance.
It was his ninth World Cup goal. By the end of the tournament, he’d tally one more — a half-volley in a 7–1 drubbing of Brazil in the semifinal — becoming the 13th man to ever net at least 10 career goals at the finals, and the eighth to do so in his first two World Cups. At the closing ceremonies, Müller would earn a Silver Ball and Silver Boot to go along with his World Cup trophy, and his Golden Boot and Best Young Player awards from four years earlier. He’s won seven Bundesligas and a Champions League. So, as he enters his third World Cup at 28 years old, within striking distance of the tournament’s scoring record, a question: Why isn’t Thomas Müller the biggest name in soccer?
In 2014, Thierry Henry called Müller soccer’s greatest role model.
He has never been the best athlete in the game, nor the most skilled. He doesn’t wow in the way that Henry and Ronaldinho did in their time, or the way Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo do in theirs. He’ll never show up on whatever soccer’s version of WorldStarHipHop is, but his highlights should be fixtures on instructional tapes.
Müller is whatever he’s needed to be. A false no. 9? He’ll score more often than most lifelong strikers. A playmaking no. 10? He’s created more from nothing than almost any of his peers. A speedy winger controlling the right flank? Those crosses will hit your boot with timing you didn’t think possible.
“Stepovers, tricks, that’s not the game,” Henry told reporters. “The game is what Thomas Müller is doing. … What Ronaldo does, and Messi, they’re just freaks. [Müller] doesn’t do stepovers.”
After playing for the local club while growing up in Pähl, a small village outside of Munich, Müller was invited to join Bayern at age 10. Seven years later, he started a breakout campaign for the German giants, notching 18 scores in 26 games at the U-19 level. By season’s end, there was a message waiting on his voicemail from Jürgen Klinsmann. He’d been called up to the first team. Müller’s debut came nearly a decade ago, when he replaced Miroslav Klose late in a draw against Hamburg in Munich.
Over the next 10 years, he’d play in 286 league games, scoring more than 100 goals, and notching nearly as many assists. In his second season, he’d score 13 times — a total he’d reach at least four more times in his career — and contribute to another five with his passing. This year, he led the Bundesliga with 14 assists. Still, Müller has never closed a year better than sixth in Ballon d’Or voting.
Some of that has to do with the way he looks. Müller runs like a newborn giraffe, gangly legs and all, awkwardly pacing across the pitch. The idea behind the movements is correct — he gets to where he needs to go — but the execution elicits confused stares more often that it does awe. He’s the Raumdeuter; the interpreter of space. His game requires him to be in the right place, at the right time, no matter where that spot might be. He’s effective in his role, but certainly not graceful. Even when he tries to mimic his more lauded contemporaries, it doesn’t look quite right.
Whereas Messi and Ronaldo seem like they’re locked in a battle of brooding superstars competing for the spotlight, Müller seems content playing his own game. He’s über-famous, sure. But less serious. His 4 million Twitter followers are more used to seeing him messing with teammates, playing ping-pong, or miming with horses than they are to find him modeling underwear on television.
Since he joined Bayern’s first team, only Real Madrid and Barcelona — in other words: the teams with Ronaldo and Messi, respectively — have exceeded their success. Playing for a superclub brings fame, but the top level of notoriety is most often reserved for those who put the ball in the back of the net. Messi has led Barcelona in scoring in all but one season since 2009. Ronaldo has topped Madrid’s charts every year since 2010. Müller, on the other hand, hasn’t ever led Bayern in goals, but has led them in assists four of the past five years. For club, he’s the playmaker. For country, he’s the scorer.
At age 20, just over two dozen games into his Bayern career, Müller made his debut for Germany in a friendly against Argentina on his club’s home turf in March 2010. Messi, two years his elder, shared the pitch. Two games later, Müller started in the German’s opening game of the 2010 World Cup against Australia. Just eight minutes in, he caught a through ball at the right edge of the box and ripped a pass to Lukas Podolski, who finished with a laser. An hour later, he added one of his own. His first international goal, in his first World Cup appearance. By tournament’s end, he’d have four more:
In his first game in Brazil four years later, Müller scored thrice, sinking Portugal’s knockout hopes. An assist in a draw with Ghana and a goal against the Americans put Germany atop the group. A setup against Algeria kept the dream alive in a testy 2–1 extra-time victory, and the opening goal and a late assist in a legendary 7–1 beatdown of the hosts rewarded him with his first chance at eternal glory.
One hundred twenty minutes after first stepping onto the pitch with Messi — the same man with whom he shared his first national team experience — Müller left a champion. That summer, Manchester United would reportedly come calling for his services with an “astronomical offer.” But Müller says he never really considered leaving. He grew up just a few dozen miles from Bayern’s grounds. It was, and seemingly always will be, his club.
Over the next month, and starting on Sunday against Mexico, Müller has a chance to join elite company. Only 21 men have ever held two World Cup trophies, and 13 of them played with Pelé in 1958 and 1962. Only seven men have scored more than 10 career World Cup goals, and few had the talent behind him that Müller does in Russia. If he lifts another trophy, or breaks his countryman’s record, his accomplishments would rank him among the game’s all-time greats, even if he doesn’t look like one.